DeSantis is a leading, if undeclared, contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. He has built a strong base among voters and legislators in Florida that supports a policy agenda designed to appeal to the right of the party.
- An independent group, Ready for Ron, said last week that would spend USD3.3mn over the next six months to urge DeSantis to run.
- DeSantis will keep his distance from congressional Republicans, arguing that he offers a better example of effective government.
- The Biden administration sees DeSantis as an opponent easier to vilify than Trump but more difficult to defeat.
Speaking in Florida state capital Tallahassee on January 22, Vice President Kamala Harris launched the Biden administration’s strongest attack so far on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
With President Joe Biden expected to announce very soon whether he will run again in 2024, and increasing signals from within the administration suggesting that he will, the White House is taking DeSantis very seriously as a potential opponent. Recent polls suggest he is pulling level with or overtaking former President Donald Trump among conservative Republicans.
In his second inaugural address as governor, delivered on January 3, DeSantis contrasted the "freedom" of Florida with the "despotism" that he implied was Biden's intent and rejected all aspects of a "woke" liberal agenda driven by "trendy ideologies". Harris's speech focused on the prospects of tighter abortion restrictions in Florida in the coming months under DeSantis.
DeSantis describes himself as a blue-collar Floridian although he graduated with honours from Yale, where he captained the baseball team, before moving on to Harvard Law School. While there, he began several years as a commissioned officer in the Navy's legal department, during which he was deployed to Iraq as legal adviser to an operational unit.
After the Navy he worked as a US Attorney in Florida before starting his first political campaign, running for Florida's recently redrawn 6th congressional district, south of Jacksonville. Having won a four-way primary, he won the general election by a wide margin and did so again in 2014 and 2016.
Six years in Congress
DeSantis was not an active legislator during his six years in the House, his greatest responsibility being to chair a subcommittee of the Government Oversight committee. However, during his first term he moved sharply to the right and became one of the founding members of the Freedom Caucus within the Republican party.
DeSantis was a founding member of the Freedom Caucus
This group, which echoes earlier calls by the Tea Party for a smaller government that spends less, is the one which forced concessions from Kevin McCarthy during his bid to become speaker earlier this month (see UNITED STATES: Weakened McCarthy takes up speaker post - January 9, 2023).
Running for governor
He was also an early backer of Trump and became one of the most outspoken critics of Robert Mueller's investigation into the 2016 election (see UNITED STATES: Mueller fight shifts to Congress - April 24, 2019). In return, Trump endorsed his campaign to be governor of Florida in 2018, with DeSantis running on a pro-Trump platform that included demands for tighter immigration controls, looser gun laws and stricter voting procedures. He and then-President Trump campaigned together frequently. Even so, his margin of victory was only 30,000 votes and he lost in most of the state's large cities.
Governor of Florida
DeSantis began his first term as governor by moving even closer to Trump, adopting much of his 'Make America Great Again' agenda. Two moves in particular brought him nationwide attention.
Arguing that many pandemic policies adopted by Democrat-run states constituted government overreach, DeSantis rejected mask mandates and kept the state's school system open, as well as businesses and restaurants. He also prevented local governments from deviating from his policy, and actively opposed Biden's COVID-19 policies.
In last March, DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Act which, among other things, limited classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity. The legislation attracted strong support from the right and loud condemnation from the left. When Disney, a major employer in the state, criticised the bill, DeSantis generated further publicity by pushing through legislation with the potential to hurt the company financially. However, with a typical degree of pragmatism, he quietly delayed its implementation so that it is unlikely to come into effect (see UNITED STATES: Disney row will boost DeSantis profile - April 28, 2022).
In focusing on education, and particularly the idea of parents' rights and, DeSantis has staked out a position in the political right that has proved popular with Republicans beyond hardcore Trump supporters (see UNITED STATES: Politics and critical race theory - August 3, 2021).
Breaking with Trump
As DeSantis's profile has risen, the temptation to pull away from Trump has increased. During campaigning for last year's midterms, DeSantis supported a Republican Senate candidate who said he would "actively" oppose a Trump campaign for the presidency in 2024. This provided Trump with an excuse for not supporting the governor's re-election bid, which in turn made a DeSantis victory with 60% of the vote all the more impressive.
DeSantis, for his part, has sidestepped attempts to get him to endorse a Trump candidacy in 2024, arguing that he will be concentrating on governing Florida.
DeSantis and 2024
While DeSantis has been careful to avoid public statements suggesting that he is seriously considering a presidential run, being a second-term governor provides him with a very strong platform, not least in terms of time available, from which to mount such a campaign. Recent polls suggest that he could defeat Trump in a fight for the Republican nomination, and one this month put him slightly ahead in a direct contest with Biden.
DeSantis has created important inroads into Florida's Latino population
He has a series of legislative achievements in Florida that are important to the party's base, and he has collected these into the sort of book, this one entitled "The Courage to be Free: Florida's Blueprint for America's Revival", that traditionally signals a campaign is imminent. It will be published next month.
More importantly for the party's leadership, he has created significant inroads into his state's Latino population, ending Democrat dominance of major urban areas such as Miami. The party is counting on a gradual rightward shift of Latino voters across the country and DeSantis has proven credentials for moving this project forward (see UNITED STATES: Parties vie for growing Latino vote - August 2, 2022).
DeSantis and Trump
While DeSantis has been building his reputation, Trump's star has been waning. Disquiet within the party at his continuing concentration on the 'stolen' 2020 election would have counted for little if Trump-backed candidates had performed well in crucial mid-term Senate races, but they did not. By contrast, DeSantis can present himself as a proven electoral winner and an effective executive who has widen his party's appeal beyond its traditional base in Florida.
However, the central question for DeSantis remains whether he can encourage enough Trump supporters to vote for the policies that the former president advocates without voting for the man himself.
DeSantis, not yet 45, will read the political situation carefully and may choose to sit out the 2024 contest if he senses that most Trump supporters cannot be persuaded to switch to him. However, as a high-profile governor with a compliant legislature, he is able to stake out and enact policy positions for his party more effectively than Republicans in Congress and so become the rallying point for anti-Democrat sentiment.
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